When Walter Cronkite decided to go to Vietnam in the summer of 1965, he had successfully resisted an ill-advised attempt by his own company to displace him, and he was the senior journalist of the most important broadcast news medium in the world.
In those days Vietnam was a consensus war, and Cronkite was television’s consensus newscaster. But in Saigon on that trip, his best qualities seemed to haunt him. He symbolized an American tradition of good faith and trust—and these characteristics were about to become casualties in Vietnam. He was inclined to take without question the word of men who had titles and positions. Often these were from World War II, men who had been his peers then and who were his peers now. It was a generational situation: he shared not just their perceptions but their seniority. They were four-star, he was four-star. They had to know what they were doing because he knew what he was doing. It was a danger of the journalist as superstar: instant access to the top of the ladder before doing hard grounding in the field, finding out the difference between what was going on out there and what the top brass said was going on, and why there was such a difference.
When he went to Vietnam in 1965, Cronkite was not an objective man but a centrist man, and there is a difference. In his own mind he was objective, a middle-of-the-road containment man. The government’s position, which he accepted, was not necessarily objective or legitimate, but it represented the center. He did not doubt the corruption weakness of the South Vietnamese government, and he did not expect to see democracy flower in the Mekong Delta, but he had been conditioned to the rhetoric of a generation—indeed, he had helped push some of that rhetoric in long CBS documentaries on American air power, and in coverage of those great American space shots. He did feel at ease with the people who were attacking the conventional wisdom, and when he arrived in Saigon in 1965, he did not like the cynicism and brashness of the younger correspondents. (From to time he remembered, not entirely with pleasure, his own brashness during World War II.) Morley Safer, who was then CBS Saigon bureau chief, tried to put Cronkite in contact with younger officers, men who were in touch with the day-to-day reality of the war, but it was an uphill struggle. The Air Force, on which Cronkite had done those sympathetic documentaries in the 1950s, reached out to him and showed him all its finest toys and newest weapons, and he simply could not go against the past. He knew almost intuitively how hard to look, and how hard not to look. It was important that in his own mind he was not violating his objectivity by accepting unquestioningly the government position. Rather, at the time of the 1968 Tet offensive, he challenged the government position, and he was aware then of a departure from objectivity.
He was also, whatever his own sympathies, the man who, as managing editor of the CBS Evening News, ultimately passed on the reporting of the younger, critical reporters from Vietnam. And while the nightly CBS report from Saigon had faults—lack of air time, lack of cumulative meaningful texture, an emphasis on blood and bang-bang in film—it nonetheless stood out. Some of the American military people called CBS the Communist Broadcasting Station. But by journalistic consensus, the two best television reporters of the war were CBS’s Safer and his younger colleague, Jack Laurence.